August dog days

August dog days.

I wish I could say I spent major August time sitting in the shade reading novels. But I didn’t. Various projects imposed themselves upon me, taking me away from the garden and my blog. Dreadful. It has not been the best of times.

In our particular area of New Jersey, we are experiencing drought conditions. Other areas, not far away, are not. We had an inch and a quarter of rain for the entire month. The whole region experienced at least 1 heat wave, which is defined as 3 or more days with temperatures above 90°F. I always think that’s funny because I grew up out on the plains where a hot day was more like 104°F. But humidity plays a big role, and I’m happy for air-conditioning when the temps get above 90°.

The men in trees finally put in their appearance and took down the old maple tree in front, which was pretty much dead. Above are photos of the remaining stump and logs. The logs were finally taken away. The stump remains. Daisy, as can be seen at right above, had to check out the situation.

Trees in back, both on our property and on the neighbors’ properties, were also taken down. This solves all my problems with a shady vegetable garden. Now, the vegetable garden gets several more hours of sun each day than it did previously. The trees were either white walnut or scrubby Norway maples, so I am happy to have them gone. The sugar maple in front will be missed, but we are already planning for some screening trees, perhaps native species, to take its place. We’re thinking about  American hollies. Big decisions.

We kept the wood chips from the maple trees. Last week I finished weeding the raspberry patch, always a huge source of the ugliest weeds, and put down wood chips. Of course, wood chips are not going to solve the weed problem. The weeds will be back, but the wood chips slow the weeds down to some extent and make them easier to pull, at least when they are small.

The weeds of August aren’t even worth writing about. They are ugly. They are going to seed. Yikes. Crabgrass is the worst. Other grasses I have not yet identified are almost as bad. Broadleaf plantains continue to regrow and sprout seed pods. Smartweed is persisting, but the galinsoga is gradually giving up for this season. It will be back of course. There are photos and descriptions of all these weeds in previous posts on weeds.

As has been described in other August posts, harvesting of vegetable crops takes up most of my garden time now. Tomatoes, peppers, onions, beans, kale, chard, lettuce, carrots, arugula. Most mornings I start out to make major renovations in the garden and end up harvesting and cooking or processing the bounty. But I’m pleased with the bounty and am already thinking of how I will do things better next summer.

Some days I dream about heading to the mountains or the shore and totally forgetting about gardens. It’s that time of year. I was a child during the polio scare in the early 1950’s. My brother had polio before the vaccine was discovered, and was fortunate to survive with only a limp. My parents were extra vigilant concerning our activities during August dog days, when the creeks, we called them cricks, were stagnant. Although we were usually allowed to roam free, in August we spent more time indoors, unhappily to say the least. So, August dog days are not my favorite days, either in memory or in real time. Oh, well.

But wait. I can’t stop on a down note when some beauty is still to be found in my garden. If I look hard enough. The vegetables themselves are beautiful and eagerly anticipated through a long, cold winter. But now I will try to find something interesting with the birds, bees, and blossoms in August.

The pear tree probably generated the most wildlife activity in August. It was a bumper crop of pears. I never seem to salvage many pears. They always rot instead of ripen.

Daisy loves the pears that fall to the ground under the pear tree. We think she gains weight during pear season because of the quantities she consumes. They don’t seem to affect her adversely, except for the weight situation.

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The bees, flies, and all other insects of course love the pears too. Above is a close-up of a pear on the ground under the pear tree, half-eaten, probably by birds, that the insect world is sharing.

We keep a bucket by the pear tree to toss the fallen pears into. They are great material for the compost pile. But beware the bees and wasps while picking up fallen pears. I usually wear gloves for protection. Daisy gets stings in her paws at times. She licks them and appreciates sympathy but has no long-lasting adverse effects. The bumblebees aren’t inclined to sting. Bees are important pollinators. Wasps are more inclined to sting, particularly if their home area is invaded, usually unintentionally. I got stung on my jaw last week while I was weeding. I didn’t even see it coming. My jaw swelled up for a few days and itched more than hurt. Other members of the family have experienced multiple stings, and that’s not fun for sure. I love the big old bumblebees. They are good garden companions. Note to self. Learn more about bees and wasps.

Birds love the pears. First the robins, blue jays, and all the LBJs (little brown jobs), mostly house finches, busied themselves with pecking at the pears to see if they were edible. I think a gray catbird also joined in the quest, but I didn’t get a photo of it. It also loved the blueberries when they were in season. Birds of New Jersey reports that gray catbirds are secretive birds, and this one is just that. I must try harder to get the photographic proof of its presence.

But back to the pears. When the pears started to soften on the tree, the juvenile European starlings showed up in noisy flocks to devour them, usually around 5 o’clock in the afternoon, scaring all other birds away. They were a dreadful nuisance. For a time, I couldn’t decide what kind of birds they were. Starlings change in appearance so dramatically throughout the seasons, it’s hard to keep track of them. But the bill and eyes seem unmistakable, as can be seen in the photos above.

Well, the pears are finally gone, and so are the starlings. I stopped filling the bird feeders this month. With all the seeds, fruit, and insects available in the garden, it doesn’t seem necessary or even wise to fill the feeders.

The American goldfinches still come for the fresh seeds of the sunflowers growing in the old apple tree area, as well as for purple coneflower seeds. The female American goldfinches, who keep their brown coloring all year, also come for the seeds, but I have not  gotten photos of them.

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These are all male goldfinches, who change their color to yellow during mating season. When will they change back to brown, and will I notice when they do. It’s harder to notice an absence. Like the juncos in the spring. One day, they are gone. When did they leave is the question.

The photo above was taken August 25. This one is still yellow for sure.

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A lady beetle was spotted on a river birch when I happened to be carrying my camera around. I’ve been watching for lady beetle eggs and larvae but have not spotted any. There is gall on the river birch leaves, which I thought for a time was lady beetle eggs. But it’s gall, which is harmless. I think. Is the lady beetle in good health. I can’t tell. What’s the dust all over her. Maybe pollen.

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Butterfly sightings were few. I saw a dark female eastern tiger swallowtail and wanted in the worst way to get a photo. But I didn’t. My only photo, not a good one, is of a sulphur on a zinnia. Now that the purple coneflowers have faded, the butterflies are not so attracted to the garden as before.

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Not many blooms and blossoms in the garden in August. That’s OK with me. Spring is the time for blossoms. The verbena is blooming. I haven’t planted verbena in several years now, but it always makes a showing without my assistance. So aerial and lovely on its long stems.

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The milkweed blossoms faded, were cut back, and have now reappeared. Here is the pleurisy root, or butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), back in bloom. Where there are flowers, there are bumblebees, of course.

The purple coneflowers were cut back as well. I hope they decide to bloom again. A good rain would aid their decision to bloom again, I’m sure.

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Last but not least, August is for zinnias, and zinnias are for August. The hotter and drier the better for zinnias, it sometimes seems. Zinnias are not native species, but they are special. Love zinnias. Next year, I need to plant many, many more in various spots throughout the garden. Then there would be blooms in August.

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When my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary back in the ’80s, my mother grew lots of her favorite zinnias, arranged them in baskets, and used them for table decorations. Some people undoubtedly thought they were too common for such an important occasion, but I thought they were absolutely stunning on white tablecloths. They cost the price of the seed and the baskets, plus some loving care. My mother later donated the baskets to her church circle, so her whole endeavor was a win-win. I think of how pretty they were whenever I see zinnias with their variously colored blossoms always so strikingly arranged by nature wherever they happened to be planted. I don’t remember the name of her favorite variety. These are Oklahoma formula mix improved, from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

Well, I’ve managed to write myself into a happier frame of mind concerning August dog days. Birds and butterflies and blooms and blossoms always do that, when time is taken to notice how special they are.

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